clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the NFL’s Final Four Teams Explain the 2023 Season

The Ravens, Chiefs, 49ers, and Lions have all defied widely held beliefs on how to build a winning team this season—and all are getting ready to play for a shot at the Super Bowl. What can those teams teach us about the league at large, and where it’s heading?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

I don’t know whether the Ravens, 49ers, Lions, and Chiefs were the four best teams in the NFL this season, but they were certainly four of the league’s most interesting teams to follow, for a variety of reasons. Kansas City dared to ask how many roster holes could be covered up by an elite quarterback. The 49ers are starting Mr. Irrelevant at the most important position in sports while spending on positions that don’t matter (or so we’ve been told). The Ravens have dominated the league with two coordinators who were coaching college kids 24 months ago. And the Lions rode an offense whose most recognizable player is Jared Goff to a stage they haven’t seen in over 30 years.

The four teams left standing have defied widely held theories on how to build a winner in the NFL. Three weeks from now, one will be crowned a champion. But before the Super Bowl matchup is decided next Sunday, let’s take some time to look back on the lessons these teams have taught us over the past five months.

The Ravens taught us … NFL teams should scour college football for more coordinators.

Just over two years ago, the Ravens’ current offensive and defensive coordinators were facing each other in the College Football Playoff semis. Mike Macdonald called Michigan’s defense, and Todd Monken called Georgia’s offense in a 34-11 win for the Bulldogs. On Sunday, the NFL’s only pair of coordinators who were both hired directly from college football will be coaching for a spot in a championship game once again. But this time, they’ll be on the same sideline.

The Ravens would have been a good football team with any competent pair of coordinators this season. The roster is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, including the presumptive league MVP at quarterback, but it’s fair to wonder where Baltimore would be if it hadn’t looked outside of NFL coaching circles to find its top assistants.

Let’s start with Monken, who has helped Lamar Jackson regain his form by handing him the keys to a pass-first offense for the first time in the 27-year-old’s career. The former Georgia and Browns OC took what had been a frustratingly condensed and heavy offensive scheme under Greg Roman and spread things out, creating more space for Lamar and his improved cast of receivers, led by Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr. The Ravens offense hasn’t just been better with this new look; it’s been more fun to watch, and it looks more fun to play in. That wasn’t by accident.

“I think that’s where players want to play [and the way] they see themselves,” Monken said of spread offenses at his introductory press conference last February. “And the game has gone that way. That’s the way the college game has gone … being in gun, RPOs, spreading the field, using space players—that’s what they’re used to. So, I think that’s the style they want to play.”

Letting Lamar play in a spread-out, pass-first offense may seem like an obvious move in hindsight, but somebody had to be the first to let him do it at the pro level. And a coach who hadn’t spent significant time in the college ranks might not have made that decision. The NFL establishment has questioned Jackson’s ability as a passer throughout his career. He was famously asked to work out as a receiver at the 2018 scouting combine. Even the Ravens passed on him with their first pick in that year’s draft and put him in an offense built for a run-first QB. When he was technically free to negotiate a contract with other teams this spring, none of the other 31 front offices outside of Baltimore made him an offer. Monken may not be a visionary, but his open-mindedness is a big reason the Ravens offense is playing at a championship level.

The blurring of the lines between the college and pro games has also helped Macdonald make a smooth transition to coordinating an NFL defense. In two seasons, he’s already established himself as a top defensive coordinator and a leading head-coaching candidate. Simulated pressures are one of the tactics he’s been able to carry over from his season as the Wolverines defensive play caller, and they helped Baltimore lead the league in sacks and overall pass defense. Here’s Macdonald explaining why simulated pressures—four-man rushes designed to look and feel like a blitz by having a defensive lineman drop into coverage and a second-level defender add on to the rush—are such an effective tool for modern pass defenses:

You can question whether the 36-year-old Macdonald has the credentials for a head-coaching job or not. But the hype has been well-earned so far. He hasn’t just beaten the NFL’s top offensive minds—he’s straight up bullied them. He’s given noogies to Kyle Shanahan and Ben Johnson, the two remaining offensive play callers in the NFC, and may get a chance to do it again in the Super Bowl. He pantsed Mike McDaniel a few weeks back to help lock up the AFC’s no. 1 seed, and he stuffed Bobby Slowik in a locker on Saturday for his first playoff win. If he conquers Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes next Sunday and follows it up with a Super Bowl win, this could go down as one of the best single-season runs for a defensive coordinator in NFL history.

No matter how this season ends for Baltimore, John Harbaugh found two coaching stars in Monken and Macdonald in places that other NFL head coaches don’t tend to look. Maybe their success will change that.

The 49ers taught us … you can’t overpay for a transcendent player (no matter their position).

The 49ers may have a roster that’s the envy of the league, but I wouldn’t attempt to replicate their team-building methods at home. The way they’ve allocated their cap dollars should make anyone with a grasp of the concept of positional value cringe. Per Spotrac, San Francisco ranks dead last in spending on the quarterback position. The 49ers rank fourth in running back spending and second in tight end spending. Christian McCaffrey is the league’s highest-paid running back, Kyle Juszczyk is the highest-paid fullback, and George Kittle is the third-highest-paid tight end. Fred Warner ranks second in salary among linebackers, and Javon Hargrave ranks sixth among defensive tackles. The 49ers are also in the top half of the league in special teams spending. They’re shelling out a lot of money to be good at positions that aren’t considered valuable, while skimping on those that are widely seen as the most important, including quarterback (32nd), offensive line (20th), and secondary (21st). Everything we’ve learned from modern analytics tells us that this shouldn’t be working … but it is, well enough to make San Francisco the current favorite to win the Super Bowl.

That doesn’t mean other NFL teams should immediately start paying their running backs and off-the-ball linebackers above-market rates, but it is proof that there are always exceptions to the rules of smart team building. Running backs may not matter, but McCaffrey transcends the positional label. He is a reliable source of explosive plays, a constant threat to pass defenses that can’t leave him to linebackers and box safeties in coverages, and he rarely leaves the field, which you don’t see often in the age of by-committee backfields. San Francisco is getting its money’s worth on McCaffery’s league-leading $16 million average annual salary.

The same can be said of Warner, whose $95.2 million extension, signed in 2021, drew some criticism from salary cap and analytics experts. It seemed inconceivable to pay that kind of money to a defender whose primary function wasn’t pass defense. But Warner does play a vital role in San Francisco’s pass coverage. He calls the shots before the snap, he patrols the middle of the field—the most valuable piece of real estate in the sport—and his open-field tackling, a lost art in the modern game, limits explosive plays for the other team. He is the perfect modern linebacker and a unique presence that allows San Francisco to save money in the secondary.

Having a quarterback making just over $1 million a year helps the 49ers get by with these supposed overpays for non-premium positions. In Shanahan, they have the perfect offensive play caller to take advantage of players who would not make the same impact under another coach. And cap specialist Paraag Marathe is the Shanahan of structuring contracts. Most teams don’t have those prerequisites to attempt this atypical cap approach, but the 49ers should be proof that in isolated, specific cases, it’s OK to splurge on a running back, linebacker, or even a fullback.

The Detroit Lions taught us … a great offensive line can overcome a middling QB.

Perhaps the 2022 Eagles should have taught us this lesson after they rode their offensive line to a Super Bowl appearance. But that team had star talent all over the place, so giving the guys up front a disproportionate amount of credit didn’t feel right—at the time, at least. There’s no such dilemma in Detroit, where it’s clear why the Lions are still playing deep into January: Their offensive line is simply bigger and more physical than opposing teams’ defensive lines. That’s been true of almost every matchup they’ve played this season, and it was the deciding factor in Sunday’s 31-23 win over the Buccaneers, which booked Detroit’s first ticket to the NFC title game in over 30 years.

The Lions finished the game with a 62 percent success rate on the ground against a top-five run defense. And despite being blitzed on over 50 percent of his dropbacks, Goff wasn’t sacked on any of those plays and was pressured on just 20.8 percent of those attempts.

It must have been a dream performance for head coach Dan Campbell, who’s been preaching the value of physical football since he took over the job in 2021. In his opening press conference when he got the job, Campbell talked of kneecap biting and other metaphors that may have gotten him in some hot water had they been uttered outside a football context. But while it was easy to laugh that off as clichéd Football Guy nonsense—especially in this era, when efficient pass games dominate the game—it quickly became clear that Campbell believed the stuff he was saying. And more importantly, the Lions players bought what he was selling.

Even if it wasn’t necessarily Campbell’s intention, Detroit’s prioritization of the run game has also allowed the Lions to replicate the production of the NFL’s top passing games even though they don’t have any of the key parts. Goff is fine, but he’s no Mahomes or Josh Allen. The receiving corps, led by the always reliable Amon-Ra St. Brown, is good but closer to league average than elite. Yet since the start of 2022, when Ben Johnson took over as the team’s full-time offensive coordinator, only four teams have generated more expected points added on pass plays, per TruMedia: Kansas City, Buffalo, San Francisco, and Dallas. The constraints that Detroit’s intricately designed run game puts on a defense—in combination with the team’s stellar pass protection—have helped them maintain a quarterback-friendly environment for a passer who isn’t great in other conditions. As teams sell out to stop the run with loaded boxes and run blitzes on early downs, there’s plenty of space to exploit in the passing game.

Fittingly, the offense’s most dynamic talent—its version of Tyreek Hill or McCaffrey—plays on the offensive line. I’m of course talking about right tackle Penei Sewell. While most great offensive line performances go unnoticed during the broadcast of a game, on Sunday Sewell’s was hard to take your eyes off of. This isn’t something we typically say about an offensive lineman, but he was all over the field against Tampa Bay.

The Lions use Sewell much like the Eagles have utilized Jason Kelce. He is the focal point of the run game, often used as a lead blocker on the perimeter despite playing a position that isn’t typically asked to carry out those assignments. That poses a unique challenge for defenses. Thanks to Sewell’s mobility, Detroit can shift its blocking numbers in an instant, popping big no. 58 up out of nowhere to demolish some poor defensive back asked to contain the run. There isn’t another right tackle in the NFL who poses such a threat.

Sewell’s the star, but the line is deep, as we saw when Jonah Jackson left Sunday’s game with a knee injury that will likely keep him out of the NFC championship game but his absence was hardly noticeable. And Detroit will even bring a sixth lineman on the field—as we all probably remember from the Cowboys game when Dan Skipper was deemed ineligible after trying to report for what could have been the game-winning two-point conversion—from time to time to make things more difficult on opposing run defenses.

Defensive linemen have so much to deal with when going up against this Lions unit. Getting pressure on the pocket is almost an afterthought, which makes life much easier for the quarterback and the offense as a whole.

The Kansas City Chiefs taught us … through an elite quarterback, all things are possible.

How?!?! Seriously, how the hell did this Chiefs team get back to the AFC title game? For a sixth consecutive year, Kansas City will be playing for a trip to the Super Bowl, and this time they got there by outlasting the Bills on the road in a 27-24 thriller. We just watched the same group lose to the Raiders at home on Christmas in a game that wasn’t as competitive as the 20-14 score implies. We saw a young Green Bay team outclass them on Sunday Night Football in early December. They managed only nine points against a Broncos squad that had given up 70 a few weeks earlier. This is easily the worst team of the Mahomes-Reid era in Kansas City, and it’s 60 minutes away from playing for another world championship.

Mahomes doesn’t deserve all the credit for this, but he does deserve most of it. While he’s getting help from a defense that ranks just outside the top five in EPA allowed, you have to score points to win games, and he’s received almost no support when it comes to doing that. The personnel deficiencies at wide receiver have been covered extensively this season, and that hasn’t been the offense’s only issue. The run game has been below average, and the same goes for the run defense, which has made it easier for opponents to keep Mahomes on the sideline. Even Travis Kelce is showing signs of slowing down, which makes sense for a 30-something tight end who has a lot of mileage on those legs and has developed his own case of butterfingers this season.

Mahomes’s degree of difficulty has never been higher. He even had to win his first road playoff game to make it to the AFC championship this season. But this is why you pay him a half-billion dollars. It’s why teams should capitalize on any chance they have to make an upgrade at quarterback. It’s why “good enough” should no longer be good enough when it comes to the position.

The NFC side of the bracket seems to contradict that idea. Purdy was taken with the last pick in the 2022 draft. Goff was a throw-in in the deal that brought him to Detroit. But those quarterbacks and their teams are in this spot thanks to well-rounded rosters that have been painstakingly built over years of uneven results. You drop a Purdy or a Goff into the Chiefs offense, and this team is drafting in the top half of the first round. It certainly isn’t playing in Baltimore next Sunday.